“Spirit?” Klavdiya asked, sitting upright in the bed. “Spirit – by the Machine, you’re awake!” Her loud voice seemed to bother Galann, who whimpered and whined on his cot.
Spirit sighed in relief. If Klavdiya was sitting up on her own, she hadn’t undergone the final surgery yet.
But the day was coming soon. Spirit rushed to Klavdiya’s bed, flinging herself at the side of it, falling with all the muster she could summon.
A cough from deeper in the room grabbed her attention. “You again? I thought the Colonel’d gotten rid of you!” Yonathen, still lying on the bed despite being obviously healed, prodded. Spirit chose not to move, not to let him see that she was riled by him.
Klavdiya squinted and shoved her nose forward, picking Spirit’s chin up to get a better look at her. “You’re not doing so hot, are you?”
“Better than you’ll be doing if you stay here and have that last surgery,” Spirit said. She shook her head, holding up a hand to stop Klavdiya from talking. “We’ve got to get you out of here.”
Weakly, Spirit tried to pull Klavdiya from the bed. Klavdiya, with her mechanical arms, pulled back as her eyes narrowed. “The Colonel said you were sick when I asked about you – and look at you! You alright? What the hell are you talking about?”
Spirit pulled once more before she fell, her joints painful. “I saw the plans for your wings, Klavdiya. It’s why he threw me in jail, why I’m stumbling now. The Colonel didn’t let me look them over before having Grum forge your wings, and they’re going to get you paralyzed at best!”
“The Colonel is going to paralyze me?” Klavdiya snorted with her laugh. “You know, he and I don’t see eye to eye on everything, but that’s only temporary. We’ll die and our souls will go to the Mainframe, then we’ll agree. But still, I don’t think he’d do something so sinister, and besides, Forgemaster Grumm will have to finish building them first. If they’re that bad, he’ll stop.”
“No, you don’t understand, this is planned – this is to try and punish me, to try and-”
Yonathen laughed, dampening out Spirit’s trembling voice. “She’s malfunctioning, Klavdiya! You heard the Colonel a few days ago. You know that she’s been in jail, that she’s gone haywire.”
“No, he’s lying,” Spirit fought. “The Colonel put me in jail because I saw your wings’ plans, and they’re terrible! They’re a punishment for me, Klavdiya, and you can’t go through with it.”
“Sounds like just the conspiracies a virus would come up with,” Yonathen spat.
Klavdiya grasped the blanket tightly with mechanical fingers, the metal clicking as tiny motors turned. “It’s ok, Spirit. Just calm down, they’ll fix you soon.”
Spirit sat up. She shook her head and clenched painful fists. “You don’t believe me? Klavdiya, I saw them, I saw the drawings!”
Klavdiya put a hand on Spirit’s shoulder. “I know, Spirit, I know. I know that you at least believe that you were doing the right thing. You’re up now, so your hard reboot should be done. Your memories from last week are just jumbled, faulty.”
Spirit shook. “No, Klavdiya, they’re not – they’re not! I remember you giving me the card, I remember when,” she paused, recalling briefly the lies she’d told Klavdiya, “when the Colonel took the card away.”
“It’s ok, Spirit. It turns out that he was just in time, what with your breakdown the very next day. He may be a douche, but he’s also done a lot to protect you this last week, what with granting you insanity reprieve from a longer prison sentence.” Klavdiya swallowed.
Yonathen cackled, grabbing a cup from the bedside table with his organic arm. “How are you even here? Why aren’t you still locked up somewhere, you worthless chunk of steel?”
Spirit stood and backed away. “Why don’t you believe me, Klavdiya?”
Klavdiya shifted about in the bed. “You don’t even know what you did, do you?”
Spirit did nothing, standing on wobbly legs from the bed. She backed to the bed where Galann was sleeping, accidentally jarring him awake. He simply cried upon waking, a typical response for a first limb replacement, but the wails bounced around in Spirit’s head, echoing in pain and despair.
“You killed Lieutenant Saifer. Cut off her legs and arms and didn’t staunch the bleeding,” Klavdiya said. “It’s ok, though. The Colonel assured everyone that you had reason, that Saifer had the sweet blood disease and you just acted too quickly and without approval.”
Spirit stumbled and fell, making Galann’s wailing worse. The human, his new arm still in a sling, cried, “My gods, my gods! Triumvirate, strike me now! What have I done!?”
Spirit shook her head. “I didn’t kill her! I came back to the Colonel immediately, told him that she was sick, I couldn’t have!”
“Then who did?” Klavdiya asked. “Spirit, it’s ok. The Colonel says he’ll protect you, like he’s always done. He may be a worthless, boring, organic waste, but he has kept you alive, you know.”
Spirit blinked. She stammered, clinging to Klavdiya’s bedside. “He’s lying to you.” She pulled herself closer to Klavdiya, fingers aching as they bent. “He’s lying to us all. He’s got all the cards, all the cards we’re supposed to have from the Machine, and he’s hiding them somewhere.”
The door handle jiggled, stealing Spirit’s attention. Galann wailed, “Help, please, just put me down, just let this end! I never wanted this, I never wanted to be owned by her!”
Klavdiya took Spirit by the shoulder, grabbing her attention away from the door. “We’re all followers of the Machine, Spirit. We’re the ones that were too far in after the war to be accepted back by the organics. The Colonel has to deal with all of our problems, including yours and Saifer’s.”
“Someone is lying, though,” Spirit whimpered. “Someone is lying – because the Machine says she cares for all of us and provides cards, and she doesn’t lie.”
Spirit dragged herself to the door, reaching up to lock it, but it was too late. The Colonel, along with two human guards that had been heavily enhanced with mechanical augments, stood on the other side of the steel frame. He sighed and, with a kind, soft face, bent down so his eyes were closer to on level with Spirit’s. “What are you doing here, little one?” he asked.
Spirit fell to the ground, curling into a ball. She covered her face with her hands as the Colonel gently patted her on the shoulder.
“Is everything fine here?” the Colonel asked. He let go of Spirit’s shoulder, standing up. Shadows ran over Spirit’s face as he moved. Peeking through her fingers, Spirit noticed that he was pointing to her, ushering the guards forward. They heaved with heavy breaths, hesitating for longer than she would have expected.
Klavdiya spoke, “Please, sir, don’t be too harsh on her. She was unaware of recent events and was confused.”
“Nonsense,” Yonathen spoke. “If she were an organic, she’d be called a lunatic and her brain filled with chips so the Machine can control her. She’s filled with conspiracies, conspiracies against you, sir.”
The Colonel picked up the cup that Yonathen had tossed, placing it in the pile of dirty laundry and dishes that a cleaning crew would pick up. “I’m afraid that both of you are wrong. She may be having a few small malfunctions, yes, but those are reparable. We’ll take care of them shortly.”
Spirit yelped as one of the guards clutched her arm too tightly, the other picking up her legs. The two women opened their eyes widely, looking to the Colonel as they readjusted their grip to be less intense.
“As much as she was gifted with adult intelligence from day one, Michael didn’t skip many steps when it came to making as organic a machine as he could,” the Colonel continued. He waved the guards off, urging them to carry Spirit away. Just as they got through the door, Spirit overheard him continue, “She’s a teenager, forever, and we’ve got to give her the leeway we would give a normal organic.”
“Then toss her in the incinerator! She killed Lieutenant Saifer!” Yonathen shouted.
Spirit fought weakly, trying to grab the door and keep it open, but failed as the guards pushed her away and her joints pain wrought havoc throughout her body.
“Are you proposing that I do what you order, Yonathen?” the Colonel asked, his voice fading quickly as the door closed slowly behind Spirit’s exit.
The guards pulled her down the hall, waiting after getting a few doors down. Warily, they looked over shoulders and lifted their gazes to the recovery room door. Spirit didn’t fight, her joints and hydraulics far weaker than these people’s enhancements, especially now that her joints had become destroyed.
“Hey,” the guard holding her by the arms asked. Spirit pointed her eyes upward. “Did you… are you going to get another vision?”
Spirit lifted a brow. “What?”
“The vision. You know, like the one you had using cardless prayers. Everyone’s heard about it, everyone knows what made you go crazy.” The guard looked back up at the door and, not seeing any movement, whispered, “Is the power structure going to change? Is the Machine weakening enough that we’re going to be able to escape the Hub?”
Spirit squinted. “Escape? Why would you want that?” She wrenched her arms away, but they were quickly grabbed back. “I didn’t receive a vision, I just read from the Holy Manual, just-”
The door slammed and Spirit hushed. The long, red coat tails on the uniform that the Colonel wore fluttered in the wind from the vents. She flinched, seeing the anger in his face that the guards couldn’t detect. She was certain that only her robot eyes could see the anger, but worried that she was being irrational.
“Take her to my office. I’ll deal with her there.”
The guards nodded. “Yes, sir.” They walked at pace with the Colonel, holding Spirit so that she could not escape, toting her uncomfortably through the main hallway. They rounded a steep corner and started down the next steel hall, heading to the central door, the door that led to the Colonel’s office. They waited for the Colonel to unlock the door, holding it open for them.
“Put her in that chair.” The Colonel gestured absentmindedly to the wooden chair across the desk from his leather-cushioned one.
The guards, as if unsure of their grip, roughly handled Spirit as they placed her upright in the chair. Metal clicks and dings sounded as they pulled cuffs from their hands, opening them with the flick of a switch.
“Take off her jacket and overshirt first,” the Colonel directed, moving to the shelves behind his desk.
The guards did as told, pulling Spirit’s jacket off and unbuttoning her shirt before quickly yanking that away too. She felt fragile without the clothing, even though it would serve as poor armor.
Cold metal wrapped around her ankles and wrists, cuffs fixing her in the wooden chair. They tugged briefly on the chains, ensuring that they were tightly closed and that Spirit’s meager strength wouldn’t be able to break through them.
“She’s not going to wriggle out of this one, sir,” the shorter of the two guards said, standing.
Spirit jerked at the chains, finding them tight and painful.
“Good work. I’ll take it from here – she’s in good hands, you can ensure the faithful.” The Colonel nodded and stood straight. “Dismissed.”
The guards nodded at each other before stiffly backing out of the room, their brows sweaty and their mechanical arms jittery. They closed the door behind them, iron latch catching against the forged doorframe with a clunk.
The room was silent but for the sound of the Colonel sifting through some books. Spirit didn’t want to look at him, didn’t want to feel that abject fear and helplessness in the face of the Colonel’s power.
Her eyes wandered, though, to the shelf he was looking through. His system of bookkeeping was too organic, the books neither filed by type, title, or even color. They were evidently placed by something else, likely just where they happened to fall.
Spirit tapped her fingers on the chair’s arm. She could say nothing.
“You’ve been missed for the past week,” the Colonel said. “Lots of people have asked after you; you’ve always been present, always been faithful by my side for all these years, and they wanted to know what had changed.”
Spirit pursed her lips. What did he want from her?
The Colonel took one of the books and put it down on his desk. Craning her neck to see it better, Spirit could tell that it was written in Sterlingish and had several drawings or schematics on the pages. It was a fairly old book, written in the style popular two or three decades ago.
“So, Spirit… now that you’re back from the hard reboot, do you feel any different? Can you tell what’s going wrong with your programming?”
Spirit held her breath. She stammered, “I… I think I’m remembering things incorrectly. It must have been caused by a lack of sleep cycles and memory storage issues.”
Quickly she bit her tongue hard enough that it hurt. The mechanism, primarily metal, wasn’t damaged and didn’t bleed, but she could feel the pain. A bitten tongue, however, wasn’t nearly enough punishment for spouting out a lie to the Machine’s chosen leader, even if he was a liar himself. She could remember what had happened and knew that she hadn’t been malfunctioning. She would need to pray for forgiveness for her lies.
“That’s my hope. After you killed Saifer, very unfortunate, I had you put in jail. While you were there, I went to consult the Machine for further guidance. I couldn’t just destroy an inorganic being, no matter her uselessness or her betrayal, without confirmation from the Mechanical Goddess.” He opened his desk with the click of a key, reaching in for something. A long, gilded dagger, one of those given to the officers in the army of the People’s Democratic Republic of Sterling, shimmered as he pulled it from the small scabbard. “By the time we came to a decision, you had been in jail far longer than I had realized. Lucky for us both, those guards had pulled you out early.”
Spirit gulped. “Lucky for us both?”
The Colonel smiled, the corners of his lips pulled back falsely. “Stop playing coy.” He brought the knife over and sat on his desk, glancing back at the book. “Several people have told me since you were imprisoned that you’d shared something with a congregation, a congregation I didn’t personally bless, and that a large number of fools in said congregation were taken by your false promises!”
He stuck the knife forward, into her shoulder.
Spirit screamed, flinching back, but he held her stiff arm steady and pulled the blade across her skin, down to the elbow.
“What are you doing!?” Spirit screamed. “Stop, stop!”
The pump in her chest turned faster, making more of the blood-red hydraulic fluid and water pulse out of her arm. She shook with pain. She gritted her teeth and cried.
“You, Spirit, have made a mess. The gods-be-damned Machine is watching us, Spirit, and wants you alive.” He stuck his fingers in the opening of her skin, pulling what was left on her arm apart. Metal wires popped off the skin, the open circuits sending negative feedback unlike anything Spirit had ever experienced before. Hydraulic fluid that had been sitting over wires and metal, just underneath the skin, rushed out in an enormous puddle.
She heaved and convulsed as he left, the skin flaps on her arm hanging off uselessly. “You’re – you’re not a true believer?” She huffed and panted in the break, then looked to her arm. It had been flayed open, the skin ripped off above her wrist, the majority of it hanging from her chest and shoulder where it attached. Where he’d pulled the skin off, there were wires and sensors hanging all over the place, each of them stinging, crying out for the skin to be replaced.
The Colonel grunted and pulled the book forward. “Spirit, everyone is a true believer. The Machine doesn’t allow any other option, does she?!”
He pulled up another tool, a pipe cleaner and a set of pliers, and shoved the bleeding part of her arm back up against the chair. The blood poured out again as Spirit screamed.
Then, the agony became worse, like fire burning in her exposed elbow joint and shooting through her steel frame. She closed her eyes, only seeing white light until it stopped.
Spirit breathed heavily and coughed, finding that water from her coolant system had leaked and fallen out of her mouth. “What are you doing? Why are you hurting me? What did I do wrong!?” Spirit cried.
The Colonel held out the pipe cleaner, showing a thick, grungy oil that had accumulated on the bristles. He quickly took a can of light grease, pushing the spout up to her arm and pressing on the diaphragm at the bottom of the canister. It felt cooling and good, matching the dulling of the pain that came from the empty receptors.
“I’m helping repair you. Klavdiya reported you had faulty movements, and I’ve known from this manual,” he pointed to the book on the table, “That you needed oil changes years ago. I’ve done so much for you, Spirit. I’ve stuck my neck out, tried to keep everyone from becoming enraged. You think people want to become machines, Spirit? They don’t, not really. There is no true loyalty, only fear. They see you, the ultimate in inorganic creation, and are forced to remember that you have it all. You have the blessing of the Mechanical Goddess and at the same time remain as human inside as you look outside.” He took the knife up again, slicing through skin on her shoulder, sticking his fingers underneath to pull it away from her metal frame.
She screamed as she watched the skin fall away, the f blood from where he cut drizzling down her shoulder. Most of it had already spewed out when he flayed her arm, but blood that had been retained fell from her back and dripped from her seat.
“You made me do this, Spirit,” he said. “You were insubordinate. You tried to bring me down, kept trying to get me in trouble for your failures. You made me kill Saifer, you made me put you in jail, you made me do this to you now.”
Tubes and wires in her shoulder moved, then he stuck the pipe cleaner into her joint, the thing burning as it ran around the bevels and nuts where they connected. Spirit screamed again, feeling like she would pass out if it were any worse.
“I’m sorry!” Spirit yelled, hoping he would stop. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do anything to you, honest!”
He oiled the shoulder, then pulled more of the skin away. He cut a bit down her back, ripping her undershirt and letting it hang on her just before he similarly peeled off the skin.
“But you did. I heard about it, how you riled people into thinking the Machine was going to talk to the lower ranks. They think you had a vision, which is what made you go crazy, but they believe you were right.” Her back burned as the Colonel stuck a new pipe cleaner around her spine, weaving it in and out of the tiny crevices, removing grungy oil. Fiery pain consumed her spine when he shoved it down the two pinholes where wires ran.
“What do you want from me!?” Spirit cried. “Stop, stop! Please, for the love of the Machine, stop!”
She screamed in agony as the Colonel roughly shoved the pipe cleaner through her back, pulling it rapidly.
“You can’t make up for it, you ungrateful child! I do all this for you. I’m the only one who’s ever loved you, the only one who’s ever done anything for you, and you return this love with impudence and disobedience!” He shoved the can of oil onto the top vertebrae, squirting out cooling oil into it. “Now, though, it’s too late. You’ve ignored the chain of command and brought division to the compound. If I shut your little ‘club’ down, people will start to believe the rumors floating around. They’ll think I have their cards stashed away somewhere and shut you up to keep them from ever speaking with the Machine. You’ve made this mess and left me to clean it up, Spirit.”
“I was trying to help! Everyone deserves to pray to the Machine!” Spirit cried.
“You actually believe that the Machine sent you as a messenger?” The Colonel moved the pipe cleaner back and forth, causing Spirit to screech with pain. “You’re not a messenger. You’re not a prophet, you’re not a leader – the Machine would never make you one. People would actually believe you if you had been called, but since no one supports your message, you are just a miserable liar.”
Spirit cried. How did she ever think that she could show the Colonel righteousness? Here he was, slicing her apart, giving her contradictory messages.
The Colonel growled. “The Machine chose me to lead, and it’s me who has to deal with your disorder. What are you going to do to help me fix your mistakes, little Machine?”
Spirit shook her head. “I can’t… I can’t do anything.”
“Wrong.” The Colonel got a new pipe cleaner off his desk. “You’re going to get your damned way. You’re going to get your weekly Manual study.”
She screamed, the pipe cleaner worming in and out of the next vertebrae.
“But, you’re going to do what I say. I’ll be there, and so will some of my loyalists, to keep the crazies you’ve stirred up from going too far. You’re going to tell them that there is no way to pray except through the cards, and that they’re only to read in the User’s Manual, not the Priest’s Manual, like they’ve been told before.”
The knife cut through the shirt and into her skin before the Colonel placed more fingers inside, ripping it away from her torso, tearing the skin up her neck and off her face, splitting the skin off at the top of her right shoulder.
A piece of glass fell from her face, a shimmering, false eye breaking to shards on the floor.
“Will you do as I say!?”
“Just make it stop, just make it stop! Please, Colonel, please! Stop it!”
Holding her skin in one hand, some of the blood from where he’d cut her dripping from the edges, the Colonel leaned in close to her face. She blinked, feeling one eyelid missing.
He breathed out, the sensors on her face tingling with the sensation of the warm breath running over it. “You’re broken, Spirit. You’re broken, and only I can fix you. You need me, Spirit, no matter what you think. So get off your high horse, stop thinking that the Machine loves you most. She doesn’t – she hates you, she told me as much.”
The Colonel stood back up and tossed the skin to the wayside. He walked around his table and opened it, reaching in to remove a green-inked Prayer Card. “She told me that you’d talked with her, that she’d given you this. You lied to my face, Spirit, just like you lied to your congregation. You used the card that you shouldn’t have had – a card that was dangerous to have used – and pretended that your cardless prayers were answered.”
He tossed the card onto the top of his desk and closed the drawer shut again.
“The Machine told me everything, Spirit, but stopped short of asking you to be deactivated. Gods damn you, you’re still inorganic, still somehow interesting to her. So we’re going to end that, and end it with a bang.” He stuck the knife into her pants, drawing it across her thigh as she screamed, then tore the skin and right leg of her pants off. “We’ll see how much your congregation wants to follow you when they see what you are inside! We’ll see what they do when they realize you are what they fear to become!”
The Colonel continued to cut, pull, tear, and clean. Spirit could only scream, unable to fight as the flesh was torn from her steel skeleton, as hydraulic fluid ran out of her tubes and down her arms. When he replaced the oil, the cooling sensation brought her back to reality.
She cried, unable to shed tears, as she watched the Colonel refill the oil can. Despite it all, she wanted to please him. She wanted him to like her, but it was impossible as long as he was jealous or angry or whatever he felt toward her now. She was entirely inorganic, yes, but her programming plagued her with conflicting feelings of love, fear, and hatred for this man.
She gritted her teeth. None of these emotions were gifts of the Machine. Even blind hatred, useful in propaganda and war, wasn’t prescribed.
But vengeance – Spirit could get behind that.
The Colonel brought back the oil can, focusing the spout on her knees as he poured the new fluid into the inlet. Fixing her was his salvation.
Once Spirit made sure he was dead, the Machine could fix him for eternity.